The David Bullard column that has caused an outcry was deeply racist and offensive, and should never have been published, writes Anton Harber in Business Day. The Sunday Times systems should have prevented its appearance, and the fact they failed to pick up the problem before publication highlights a general shortage of experienced sub-editors.

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

When I opened the Sunday Times last week and read David Bullard’s column, the question I asked myself was this: “How on earth did this get into the newspaper? How did this get past the Sunday Times editors?

That was the real shock for me. At least three copy-editors would have had to see that material before it went to the printers, but these people, who should have alerted the editor to a problem, are either so out of touch that they did not see the potential problem or, more likely, they skimmed over the article.

It is astounding, because it was a piece that belonged in the archives of the AWB. It was so profoundly offensive (suggesting that Africans don’t care about their children) and so deeply imbued with ignorant racist stereotypes (Africans can only arouse themselves from their stupor for the occasional round of ethnic cleansing) that it presented one of those rare occasions when you realise how words can do real damage to our fragile social fabric.

Normally, when a columnist submits material of this sort, the sub-editor assigned to go through it and drop it into the page would alert a senior person that that there was something he or she should see. They would phone the columnist and say that they can’t print this stuff and offer the writer the opportunity to fix it. If the columnist refused, it would amount to a resignation.

That happens without much fuss every now and then at most papers. There is no freedom of speech issue here. A columnist serves at the pleasure of the editor, and there is only a problem if the editor abuses his privilege by sacking a columnist unreasonably, such as for offending an advertiser or shareholder.

Columns are an essential part of a newspaper, bringing opinion and debate to break through the tedium of news and provoking thought and discussion. A sensible editor carries a healthy range of challenging opnion, but makes it clear that there are certain views which go beyond the bounds and will not appear in the newspaper.

If, for example, the deputy minister of safety and security had offered her now famous “Shoot the bastards�? speech as an opinion piece, most sane editors would have pointed out that this was dangerous incitement to break the law and difficult to defend before the Press Council or a court of law.

Rapport editor Tim du Plessis recently caused a storm by hiring controversial columnist Deon Maas, and the firing him quickly. In that case Du Plessis distanced himself and his paper from Maas’ view that Satanism should be treated as just other religion, but printed it, and then backed down when facing a boycott from readers, distributors and advertisers.

I viewed that as an unfortunate victory for intolerance, because it was a provocative column which did not actually degrade or threaten anyone. Bullard’s expression of profound racism, however, is repugnant in a society still grappling to overcome a long history of the most brutal racism. In both cases, editors should ensure they are in a position either to stop something going into the paper, or defend it to the death.

Newspapers are produced under pressurised conditions, in which it is impossible to catch every error and double-check every fact. But when stuff like this gets through and creates a national embarrassment for the editor, then you have to ask what is going wrong. And we know what it is: it is not unlike the Eskom problem. Sub-editors, the sparks of the newspaper world, the behind-the-scenes wizards who actually shape the newspaper and get it out every night, are in short supply. At least good and experienced ones are.

Most young journalists, unsurprisingly, want the glamour of picture by-lines and the pleasure of hanging out with the rich and famous. The prestige of being a quiet crafter of eye-catching headlines and witty captions, the true wordsmiths, the designer of magnificent pages which bring the reporters’ work to life, has diminished in an age of page templates and spell-checks. And we see the messy result on the pages of our newspapers every day.

If editors want to avoid these kinds of embarrassments, it is not that they need to get rid of controversial columnists. They need to invest in more good sub-editors.

* Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University. This column was first published in Business Day, 15 April 2008